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Here Before (SXSW Review): Compelling Psychological Thriller

Here Before (SXSW Review): Compelling Psychological Thriller

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Here Before benefits from an ever-excellent Andrea Riseborough performance in the service of a moving portrait of a grieving woman afflicted by the supernatural.

Here Before is the horror-tinged story of a woman who starts to see echoes of her departed daughter in the young girl who moves in next door to her family. As the film’s tension increases throughout a taut runtime, we are left to question if it is the fraying sanity of our narrator, or something more nefarious at play. It is both a tragedy and a psychological thriller, and it benefits from a great specificity of setting and a strong cast, including the wonderful Andrea Riseborough.

Director Stacey Gregg makes the best of Riseborough, here, and crafts a role worthy of her multifarious talents. Riseborough’s Laura must balance the intensity of a woman in deep grief with the charm of a kind and devoted mother. She must confront her own healing while balancing the supernatural happenings around her. The film takes its cues from a classic “haunted child” narrative – is the new neighbor’s daughter somehow connected to her own? – but pivots into a more humanistic direction. Laura must question her sanity as the child next door keeps echoing… or emulating… how she imagines her daughter may have grown up. Riseborough’s is the sort of performance that resonates in the glances held for a half-second too long, or the ebullience that hues just a step beyond the norm. It’s smart, crafty work from one of the most underrated actresses in the business.

I cannot escape the feeling that, if Andrea Riseborough were a man, she would be praised at a Philip Seymour Hoffman level for the diversity of her skillset and dedication to plying her craft across all genres and roles. She’s an absolute chameleon as adroit in a nostalgic romance in Luxor or an insane psychological horror film Possessor, just to pick two examples from last year. She’s a woman of deep intensity, but also of broad emotion – it’s a rare skill set.

Andrea Riseborough in Here Before (Courtesy of SXSW)

Stacey Gregg, a theater director making her feature film debut, shows a great gift with her actors. Even the smaller roles feel fully realized, and she crafts a Northern Ireland setting that feels incredibly specific and detailed. I appreciated all the exacting socioeconomic details that help inform the storytelling. In a story largely focused on the tension between two families living in adjacent homes, Gregg subtly lays out the financial and social distances between the families. One moment sees one father leaving for work in a suit while the other stands outside smoking a cigarette – a sly demonstration of the worlds between these neighbors. It helps as well that all the actors, especially the couples’ children, played by Niamh Dornan and Lewis McAskie, manage to constantly ground their performances in human emotion even as the supernatural tension ratchets up. Dornan, in particular, is asked to do a lot, here, and proves herself a game scene partner for her more well-known adult counterparts.

It is – in the best way – a film that seems divorced from specific space and time. In particular, the film feels incredibly exacting in its portrait of grief. Tonal balance is always delicate even for long established directors and here neophyte Gregg manages to keep her story nicely tethered to a mother attempting to come to grips with the loss of a daughter. That the film manages to expand that window to a husband and a son both dealing with that loss, and then further into the supernatural, is a real reflection of Gregg’s gift for tone.

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There are elements of the film that did not quite work for me. The relationship between Laura and her neighbor Marie, played by Eileen O’Higgins (Brooklyn), never quite coalesced for me. Riseborough and O’Higgins have great chemistry, so the machinations and wedges the plot forces between them never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. I’m not sure the film’s conclusion quite worked for me, but it makes for an interesting payoff to Laura’s arc. Despite any quibbles, Here Before remains a compelling psychological drama. Blessed by the wonderful Andrea Risebourough, the film serves as a stark character study of grief. I look forward to seeing what Stacey Gregg does in the future.

Here Before: Trailer (Bankside Films)

Here Before had its World Premiere at SXSW Online on March 17, 2021 and will be released in US Theaters on February 11 and on VOD on February 15, 2022.

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